Daniel Hawes

Daniel R. Hawes Ph.D.

Quilted Science

Unselfishly Unpopular

Unselfishly Unpopular

Posted Aug 09, 2010

If you want to listen to public radio, you have to donate to public radio...or you can of course let others do the donating while you free ride and concentrate on the listening part. In this case, however, you should be warned that free riding is not the most popular of behaviors, and that notorious free riders are generally not welcome in most group contexts.

In the real world, whenever it is possible to monitor and sanction behavior, free riders are often expelled from groups, or group benefits are withheld from them. And when given the option in experimental public goods games, people often choose to exclude identified free riders from further participation in group activities also.

As I said, free riders are not very popular.

However, free riders are far from being the only ones who can be unpopular in public goods settings. Instead, they are surprisingly joined in infamy by those at the very opposite end of the selfishness-unselfishness spectrum; namely those who do not consume the public good, but unselfishly contribute towards its provision anyway!

This surprising finding comes from a recent study by Craig Parks and Asako Stone, which shows participants in experimental public goods games to dislike playing with people who contribute beyond what they consume just as much as they dislike playing with those who free ride.

The series of experiments, which can be found in this months Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlight data on the choice behavior of students made to participate in repeated computerized public goods games against simulated opponents. Not knowing that their opponents were software programs, participants were later provided fake information about the supposed behavior of each of the other group members; in addition to which they were also given the option to expel group members from participation in an upcoming round of the same public goods game.

To the surprise of the researchers (who were initially investigating an entirely different phenomenon), participants tended towards playing against those who had contributed in equal proportion to what they were consuming. Both those who had contributed less than they consumed, as well as those who contributed more than they consumed were the most likely to be voted out of the group.

To make sure this was not a mere statistical artifact, the researchers repeated similar studies which replicated the finding and added further insight into which processes could be driving the effect.These additional studies suggest that, although sanctions were given to unselfish contributors and free riders alike, the motivation for these sanctions were quite different in both cases: For example, the main reasons participants did not like playing with unselfish contributors seemed to be that a) participants did not like how they themselves compared to unselfish contributors, and b) participants viewed unselfish contributors as "rule breakers" who were not adhering to the "appropriate norms" for the public goods setting.
In comparison, free riders were rejected as future playing partners, mostly on grounds of the argument that they were being asocial or "destructive".

As mentioned, the finding comes as somewhat of a surprise, but the researchers see it as fitting nicely with similar research which shows that exceptional individuals are often disliked. For example the authors cite research which shows that we often dislike those who are extremely competent, tend to get upset with those who offer help, and also reject those who succeed in standing their ground on moral issues. So disliking those who unselfishly contribute to our cause might not be that unusual after all.

Parks and Stone offer different reasons for their findings, which relate to the different motivations that people report for disliking unselfish group members:

"Regarding those who emphasize the social comparative aspect of the benevolent other, there is evidence that, within a group task setting, social comparison tends to induce feelings of inter- personal competition. People feel driven to outdo the group member who is setting the standard. In a setting such as ours, the standard being set by the benevolent other is to give up a considerable amount of personal resources and receive only a small payoff in return. To compete with such a person means that one would need to give even more and take even less, not a very desirable prospect. Removal of this person would eliminate that competitive standard. .."

Regarding those who would sanction unselfish contributors because of perceived norm violations, Parks and Stone offer that,

"research on norm deviance shows that antinorm ingroup members are dealt with harshly, because they represent a threat to the stability of the group norm, and that others see removal as an effective method of dealing with the problem. From a norm deviance perspective, then, the benevolent other would look like someone who has the potential to shift the norm away from equity and in an undesirable direction, and an effective way to deal with such a person is to remove him or her from the group."

Remains to say that popularity is - of course - not everything...

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Main Reference: Craig D. Parks, Asako B. Stone (2010). The Desire to Expel Unselfish Members From the Group Journal of Personality and Social Psychology : DOI: 10.1037/a0018403